Taylor sat back on his bed, sighing, resting his head on his folded arms. Thinking. So much thinking. The past three months had gone by so quickly. "I've done pretty good." The thought was tinged with self satisfied flavor.
The nights were bad, the nightmares , gruesome. All manner of carnage, all night, every night. He couldn't believe his mind had projected Ruby into it all, now, along with his family, and Tiffany. Everyone he loved. "I could make a movie out of that stuff. It'd make a fortune..." Shaking his head, he grinned a little, self satisfaction still sweet. He handled them on his own. He hadn't had to wake anyone up. No screaming, no yelling, no pacing, no disturbances. And no throwing up. Thank God. If that had started again, he'd have folded completely. No, he just woke up, out of breath and grossed out, got himself a drink, went to the bathroom and crawled back into bed, usually with Ike or Zac, and went back to sleep. No sweat. Unpleasant, but manageable. Come to think of it, they weren't so often, or so graphic anymore. "Gettin' integrated, yeah yeah..." He hummed a little, over CC's phrase. CC. That was an awesome thing that had come out of all this. His friendship with Ceec. And Karen. He smiled to himself. CC and Karen. Karen had turned up with a rock the size of Wisconsin on her finger, and when asked about it, had flushed red as a fire hydrant, and CC not much better. They were getting married, "Soon" according to Karen, and "Sometime, yeah..." according to CC. "That'll be so cool, CC is so scared." He laughed softly, not wanting to wake Isaac up. "CC's so funny when he's embarrassed. Can't believe he told Karen his full name, Clarence Clyde. And Karen is still gonna keep him."
Tiffany was going with him to the wedding. Provided it happened before everyone including Zoe, reached retirement age. "Geez, we've never danced together," he thought, "That will be somethin." Zac is gonna bug the hell outta us, I can just see it."
Random thoughts continued to drift through his mind.
Tiffany. He guessed she was his girlfriend now. She sure wasn't just his soccer buddy anymore. No, there were a lot more interesting things to do with Tiffany, than just soccer. "A lot more..." The slightly naughty thought was tainted somewhat. They fought a lot more too, and he could never figure out why. Little things that meant nothing, escalating into big deals that they could never figure out. The worst one had lasted two days. Two days of hell, with her not speaking to him, and refusing his calls.
"Two longest days of my life" he thought, "But the kiss and make up was kinda good."
They agreed to not let things get outta hand like that again. God knew if they could do it. He thought maybe they'd have to figure out what was wrong, before they tried to avoid it. Girls. He'd never get it. But it hadn't undone him any. He'd rolled with it pretty well. Another thing to be proud of. He hadn't had to go running to anyone to "Fix his head." He did it himself. Whatever the situation, he usually figured out a way to get through it.
He could hear his mom humming in the kitchen, and smell supper cooking. Mom. Dad. He finally felt like he could actually talk to them again. And they were listening, really listening to what he said. "Yeah, we've come a long way."
He sighed, thinking of his brothers. If there was a fly in his ointment, it was them. Oh, they'd been great since he got back. Friendly, easy, supportive. But that shadow was still there. He knew. The music. They missed the music, the band. So did he. Could he do that again? He didn't know. They didn't know. Would he ever be able to get on a stage? Isaac wanted to, so badly it hurt, and Taylor knew it. "He said he'd wait for me, and he will. Still, I wish it was now. I want to be there again."
And Zac. Taylor knew there was alot of stuff to work through, between him and Zac. He loved him so much, he was working on this so hard. Maybe too hard? Maybe he should just back off a bit? He knew Zac loved him, but there was still this feeling of... the word escaped him. Fear wasn't exactly it, but he knew there was a gap there. Zac never shied away from him, never acted afraid to be alone with him, but there was a look in his eyes. A shadow of suspicion, and he knew it was an echo of memory. "He may not be afraid, but I'm not just me to him. Not yet. Soon, I hope..."
Sighing again, he looked out the window, watching the reporters and the fans milling about, out on the sidewalk. He remembered coming home that first afternoon, his chest tightening as soon as he saw them. His voice, slightly panicky, higher pitched than usual, out of breath. "Why are they still here?!" After six months, they knew he was coming home, and well... he was news. It had been a rough moment, the weight of memory heavy on him, breathing far too rapidly, hyperventilating. He'd been too dizzy to get out of the car on his own.
But he survived it. By himself. The nervous voice and momentary dizziness the only signs of tension. "Thanks again CC, you taught me good." He shot a glance heavenward, as well. "And you..."
There was still something though, he didn't know what. He didn't feel completely right yet. There was still a dread in him, a shapeless, shifting fear that darkened his thoughts, and tainted his happiness.
Leaning his head against the window frame, he closed his eyes, and felt the warm breeze on his face. "I'll get there, I know I will."
Zac couldn't stand it. Cabin fever. I'm going to get cabin fever and end up killing my whole family just like that one guy... what was his name? No matter he went crazy in that Stephen King story and that's what is going to happen to me if I don't get out of this house. He stood and wandered to the kitchen. His mother was at the kitchen table reading. Zac walked around the table and leaned over her shoulder.
Diana glanced back at him over the top of her reading glasses. "Something the matter honey?"
Zac sighed. "No, just bored."
She reached up and lightly patted his soft hair. "You have a roomful of toys. Why don't you go play with them?"
Zac sighed again, deeply. "'Cause, Ike is up there sleeping. Said he had a headache. And Tay is just sitting up there staring into space. I don't feel like going in there."
"Want to watch a movie with me and dad?"
Zac shook his head. "Nahh, I don't feel like watching TV."
"Read? Draw? Write?" She watched him crinkle his nose at her suggestions.
"I don't want to read. I don't feel like drawing. And I definitely don't feel like writing."
Diana stood up and tugged playfully at the hood of his sweatshirt. "Well kiddo, I don't know what to tell you then."
"Can I go outside?" Zac gave her a pleading look.
"I don't know Zac. Those people are still down there." She frowned. Taylor'd been back home a few, months, and she swore, the crew had arrived at the end of the drive hours before his arrival. They'd beaten the family home... It was beginning to be more than an annoyance, it was becoming an outrage. And it was the one thing standing in his way. He just couldn't seem to face them. He did everything he could, but he couldn't leave without at least three other people in the car with him, and the color would drain from his face as they drove through. CC'd told them it would pass. He'd "Integrate" whatever that meant. That he'd work through it. She hoped so, but more than Taylor learning to relax about the ugly clot of people in their yard, she wished they'd just go away. It wasn't just Taylor they were tormenting.
"Moooom, if they bug me I'll come back in. Please? If I stay in here any longer I'm gonna go loony tunes." He stared at her.
She sighed. His brown eyes were dull. They used to glow with excitement and anticipation about every thing. She noticed little things like this more each day. "All right," she relented. "But you be careful. Do not under any circumstances leave the yard and if they do bother you, I better see you right back in this house."
Zac smiled. "Sure thing captain!" Gleefully he grabbed his shoes and threw them on, forgetting to tie them in his haste.
After ten minutes of bouncing a basketball and missing just about every shot he tried, Zac was already bored out of his skull. Inside. Outside. He realized it didn't matter where he was. He was lonely. Defeated he tossed the ball to the side and started to walk towards the tree house. He still had some unread comics up there. Moping over the unacceptability of his situation, he forgot about his untied shoes, stepping on a lace and pitching onto the driveway. Beyond annoyed, he spread himself out on his back. "I cannot believe this day. I just simply can not believe it." Sitting up, he surveyed the damage.
"Aww man," he muttered. He examined the new hole in his jeans, and bemoaning the lack of injury, or blood, proceeded to tie his shoe.
Taylor stared vaguely out the window. The breeze blew in, soft against is skin, bringing with it the scent of growing things. "Green..." he thought, "it smells green out there." Sighing, wishing he were out there too, but feeling too dozy to make the trek down the stairs, he laid his head on his crossed arms, letting the breeze ruffle his hair. Those people were still out there. Though they no longer terrified him, they made him nervous and edgy. He could go out, he could ride through them, but the clicking of shutters made him flinch, and barrage of voices strained his temper. He cursed himself daily for not just going out there and telling them where to go. There certainly was no band to consider, no PR rep to have a stroke. He could if he wanted to. He shook off the pervasive creeping memory of a hand on his neck, sighing. "I'm just a coward..." He could hear Zac bouncing a ball against the wall, the repetitive sound almost hypnotic. He had started to doze when the sound suddenly stopped, prompting him to look up. His gaze fell not on Zachary, but on the man quietly walking up the driveway. He shifted his look to Zac, who was down on one knee, tying his shoe, seemingly unaware that he was not alone. Sitting up quickly, his relaxed mood obliterated, he watched intently, eyes narrowed, every nerve in is body firing.
"You okay, Zac?"
The voice startled him, and Zac quickly jumped onto his feet. "Fine. Thanks."
Eyeing the man warily, he started to walk towards the tree house again.
Zac stopped. "What?" he questioned without turning around.
"How you doing? How are your brothers?"
Zac raised his eyebrows. "Fine, we're all fine."
"Good, good. That's good." The man watched the young boy intently. "How's Taylor doing?"
Zac stiffened at the question. "He's fine. I just said that." His voice cracked, and he swallowed, trying to wet his dry throat.
"Hmm... that's not what I heard."
Spinning Zac glared at the man and replied sharply. "Well then you heard wrong!"
Taylor was watching Zac intently, surprised he was even talking to the man. He didn't like it. Zac looked way too tense. He quietly opened the window a little wider, to better hear what they were saying. As he leaned out, he noticed the group at the end of the drive slowly advancing. And why not? One of their number had made it in, might as well swarm. Disgusted, swearing softly, he turned to Isaac, wondering if he should get him up to go take care of it. Where were his mom and dad? Probably in the kitchen and unaware of what was going on. He sighed. He didn't want to wake Ike. He wasn't feeling good. Wondering how to deal with this, he turned his attention back out the window.
The man held up his hands. "Whoa tiger. I was just asking because I saw him out with your mom, the other day, and he looked pretty bad. Sick. Skinny. Is he sick Zac? What about Isaac? I haven't seen him at all."
Zac frowned, now genuinely puzzled. Wherever this guy was coming from, he was talking crap. Tay looked great! He sure didn't look sick. Shaking his head, he adopted a reasonable tone. "Tay isn't sick. He's fine. We're all fine."
"Hmm, well that's not what I heard."
Shaking his head in disgust, Zac turned away again, arrested by the man's next words. "Well what about the band? Zac, what about Hanson?!" "What about it..." "I heard that this was it. No more performing for you guys. Because of Taylor. But that's just what I heard."
"We're going to perform again," Zac said, determinedly. "But we're taking a break. We need a break. It has nothing to do with Taylor. We were all ready for a break. So... we're taking one."
"Well you needed a break, I'm sure. After what your brother did to you. What exactly did he do to you anyway? I heard about some busted ribs? I was just asking because those guys down there have been saying some pretty interesting stuff about your brother. How he just got out of a mental hospital and all. I told them it wasn't true, but they don't listen to me. Y'know how it goes. The whole world pretty much thinks your brother's crazy. And I heard you're afraid of him. Like I said, I told them I didn't think so but..." He spread his hands helplessly.
Zac just stared at the guy. His fists were curled into tight balls, his nails digging into his palms. "What are they saying?" he practically growled.
"Just that your brother is crazy. That he's a pothead. That he went on a rampage and beat the tar out of you. That you guys are washed up..."
Zac's eyes widened. He'd held his temper all this time. All these many many weeks, months, listening to the rumors, hearing them badmouth Tay, ignoring them at the end of the drive. But now... who did this guy think he was? Forgetting he was supposed to go inside, forgetting everything except his anger, he stepped forward, eyes flashing.
"You just SHUT UP! That isn't true!" Hot tears stung in Zac's eyes, and he took another step towards the man, ready to hit him if so much as one more word came from his lips.
Taylor had heard enough. This was all about him. Poor Zac was down there dealing with all of this, trying to defend him, against what was essentially, the truth. He jerked his head back in, slammed the window, and headed downstairs. Nerves? Hell with 'em. Nightmares? Whatever, they ended when he woke up. Enough was enough.
"Hey, I'm not the one saying it. It's those guys." The man jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the group of press, that were slowly trickling up the driveway to get a better view of the situation.
Zac watched them, his eyes narrowed. "They don't know anything. You don't know anything!" he shouted at the group. "You all just hear what you wanna hear and don't listen to the truth! My brother isn't crazy! You're the crazy ones! You sit here and stalk us! We can't go anywhere, we can't do anything! You make up stories about Taylor that aren't true! You guys have turned him into some sort of horrible monster in your stupid little papers and on your dumb TV shows! Well he isn't! He's my brother! And you guys better leave him alone! Or I'll... I'll..." Zac couldn't finish. The tears had started to spill down his flushed cheeks and his words were coming out in choked sobs. He turned and started for the house. Suddenly he turned back. "You guys are the monsters! YOU!"
He stopped short, nearly running into Taylor, who'd come up behind him, quickly and silently. He leaned down to Zac, and whispered in his ear. "Zac, go..." Zac shook his head, and glanced back down the drive, to the advancing group of people. "No, no I'm staying here. You don't know what they, what HE..." he jerked a thumb at the man standing nearby, "was saying." "Yes I do Zac, now go. This isn't about you." Zac shook his head again, standing his ground. Taylor nodded, and turned to the man in front of him. He didn't speak loudly, but his clear voice carried to the entire group.
Walker and Diana, unaware of the drama playing itself out between Zac and the intruders, were talking quietly at the kitchen table. For once, nobody seemed to be having a problem, the most pressing disaster in occurrence was Isaac's headache, which was bothering him not at all, as he was sleeping through it. Grateful for the respite, they were simply enjoying some quiet time, completely out of earshot of the front of the house. They were startled out of their peace by someone pounding down the stairs. Glancing through the kitchen door, they saw Taylor, flying through the room as if the hounds of hell were after him. Alarmed, they jumped up and followed, in time to see him slam out the front door. Diana saw the small army approaching, up the drive, and started to open the door, only to be stopped by Walker's hand on her arm. Holding a finger to his lips, he motioned her to be quiet, and whispered. "No, just wait... look." Something in the way Taylor was walking out there told him to let it be. To let his sons deal with it. Ordinarily he would have been out there in a second, ready to defend, but now something inside was stopping him, a mental hand restraining, telling him to just wait and see. Diana eyed him dubiously, and took up vigil next to the window, ready to move if anyone threatened her children. Through the door, they could just make out what Taylor was saying.
"If you have something to say about me, maybe you'd better say it to me." His soft, clear voice carried easily to the edge of the road.
"And when you're done saying it to me, maybe I could go get my dad, and you could repeat it to him. Or maybe my little brother and sisters, since you seem to like hassling little kids." The man held up one hand. "No, no, it's not like that. I just thought that the little guy would want to know..." The man took a step forward, and Taylor suddenly felt Zac's body pressing back on him. He looked down, absurdly touched. Zac had stepped in front of him. He felt tears stinging his eyes, at the thought that Zac would try to protect him. He put his arm around his brother, pulling him against him, presenting, unconsciously, a solid show of unity. This show of affection and protectiveness brought several of the inquisitors up short, the jumble of sound that was their combined voices, dimming somewhat, even as their cameras raised. This did not look like the act of a boy who was dangerous, or who couldn't be trusted, and there was no fear in Zac's eyes. Taylor simply stood, staring them down for a minute, accusation obvious in his icy eyes, refusing to flinch as flashbulbs went off, then turned back to the instigator. Holding Zac a little tighter, he raised his voice slightly. "I know what you wanted. You didn't think he needed to know anything. And you're sure not here to do us any favors. How can you people sleep nights? Can you tell me that? How can you come stand in our yard like this, how can you look at yourselves? Don't you know what you're doing to us? My little brother and sisters can't even go outside and play, because you're all here, waiting to jump on them. None of us can go anywhere, ever, because you're all always here! What is it you want? Is it because of me? Because of where I was? I've been home for weeks and you're all still here. There's nothing here for you to see! Don't you even care that you're holding a whole family prisoner? And none of us have done anything to you." He looked toward the group at the back, beyond the press, and reporters, the group of fans who'd been holding vigil there day in and day out. "What about you? You here 'cause you like us?" Several of them nodded, and he had to struggle not to swear at them. "This is how you treat people you like? You stand and stare, and make it impossible for them to live? You think we like feeling like we're on display? You think my brothers and sisters like hearing what all of you are saying? How do you think that makes them feel? What would you do if YOUR little sister came in crying, because people were saying mean things about you. How would you feel? Did you hear what he was saying to my brother? Did you hear what it was doing to him? Did even one of you ask him to stop? Or were you all just too anxious to hear something? Did you want to hear that I'm crazy? You've all already heard that." He stopped, he was beginning to lose control, and he didn't want to. Didn't, he suddenly realized, have to. He could keep this together, this wasn't so hard at all. And damned if he would give them the satisfaction of undoing him. "If you liked us at all, you'd respect us enough to not do this. Or, if you have to be here, couldn't you at least help out a little kid, when guys like this..." He flung a hand at the frontman's face" are making him cry? You say you like him, but you stood there and let this guy do that to him! You're no better than they are." He pulled Zac closer, fingers absently stroking his hair. The scorn and contempt in his voice had reduced a few of them to tears, and he watched, satisfied, as they began to trickle away. Good. He was going too. He tugged on Zac's arm a little, and Zac understood, stepping back, and turning back up the drive. Pointedly ignoring the little crowd of people, they turned their backs and headed back to the house, Zac slipping his hand into Taylor's. About halfway there, Taylor turned around, and called back to them. "You know, you should all just go home. What you're doing, it's not... how is it any of you can go home and face people? Zac's right, you are the monsters here." He looked at Zac, who nodded, and Taylor reached for the door handle. He jumped as it was ripped from his hand, the door flying open. Before he could blink, he found himself held tightly by his father. He accepted the embrace for a moment, then pushed away, wanting to see his dad's face, half afraid he'd be angry. But no, there was no anger in those eyes. Love, pride, concern, but no anger. Nodding, he shook loose, and followed Zac into the kitchen, wordlessly helping himself to a coke, wishing it were possible to dump a good healthy shot of vodka into it. Now that he was inside, in the safety of his kitchen, his hands were shaking. He glanced up at Zac, did a double take, and burst into laughter. Zac was staring at him with something akin to naked adoration, eyes huge, mouth open. "Zac, for god sake, shut your mouth before your brains fall out." Zac's open mouthed stare became a grin. "Tay that just ROCKED! You were GREAT!" Raising his bottle, he clicked it with his brother's, and Taylor found the shakes receding. "Yeah, y'think? Think they'll go away?" Zac shook his head, and stuck out his tongue. "Nah, no way, they think they'll see somethin' good. But you told 'em off so cool... Dad, was that not great?" Walker smiled, and patted his son's shoulder. "Yeah, Zac, that was great. Can you just take off for a few? I want to talk to Taylor." Zac's eyes clouded a little, but he bounced back quickly, and nodded. "Yeah, see ya..." Running off with his coke to the phone, to call Jay and tell him about the cool thing that had just happened.
Taylor eyed his dad, as he got himself a pop and sat down. The look in Walker's eyes was peculiar, and he wasn't sure what to expect. Watching him expectantly, he sipped his drink, finally unable to stand it any longer. "Dad!" "Hmm?" "You're making me nuts, what did you want to talk to me about." "Oh..." Walker's gaze drifted toward the door. "All that. Out there. You went out there." "I know, I'm sorry, but they were picking on Zac, they made him cry! I know I should have gone and..." "Tay." The quiet voice cut through the babble. "You went out there." He stared at his Dad for a moment longer, and the reality suddenly hit. My God. He'd gone out there. Not in a car, not surrounded by the protective shield of his family, but alone, armed only with his own outrage and the need to protect his brother. Into a small army of photographers and press. Alone. He dropped the soda bottle on the table, as his hands renewed their trembling. "Holy God..." Man and boy, stared across the table, as spilled coke dripped onto their laps, ignored, as the final realization sank into each mind. The final hurdle had been crossed, at last. Walker broke the silence, then, shooting a questioning glance at his son. "Y'okay?" Taylor nodded, face breaking into a grin. "Yeah. Yeah, y'know, I really think I am." He picked up the now empty bottle, grinned apologetically, and reached behind him for a dishtowel. He put it to work on the spilled soda, glancing occasionally, almost shyly, up into his father's face. Nodding, still feeling absurdly bashful, he smiled again. "Yeah, Dad... I guess I know I am."